Speaking about suffering in a general way makes me remember that, like every other one of us poor unrealized beings, I have the habit of a persistent narrative of suffering. What I mean is that I have spent a great deal of time telling myself (and others) the story of my suffering. The insidious thing about doing this is that retelling a narrative is the same as practising a narrative. Worse, we, I, all of us, tend to identify with both our narrative and with our suffering. We believe that our narrative of suffering is identical with ourselves. When we fall into the habit of persistently retelling our suffering we strengthen (through practice) our belief that our narrative is identical to the self. (Exploring our suffering with someone qualified to help one stay on track so we can find a way out of our suffering is okay. Retelling is not exploration.)
We have an ego that says I,I,I,I, me, me, mine. But the world isn’t all about ‘I’. The world has its own ideas. The world is so complex, we are incapable of understanding it. The best we can achieve is some limited theory about the world. Yet the ego insists that it should get its own way in spite of not being able to see reality clearly enough to make sensible, workable demands. Being unable to see the future, the past, or the present, the ego can’t plan well enough to get its own way; the best the ego can make happen is some variously unsatisfactory, pale imitation of the desired thing. But the ego never stops trying. And in not getting its own way the ego suffers. And in suffering, the ego tells a tale of how unfair the world is being to it.
We identify ourselves with our ego. Our ego tells us that the ego, ‘I’, is all we are. The ego is a long list of desires frustrated and complaints thereof. But the ego is a construct and we could do well without letting it run us. But who are we without the ego? For our whole life we have practised the belief that we are only ego. And if the ego is nothing but the idea that we unfairly sufferer because we do not get our ego’s deserved desires then we are in a terrible bind: to give up on our ego-based narrative of suffering is to give up what we, our egos, claims is the totality of our being. The fear is that if we give up the ego, if we do away with our narrative of suffering, we will no longer exist. We will disappear. What else can we do except continue to reiterate and believe in the narrative of our personal suffering.
My narration of suffering began with migraine headaches. I started getting them when I was two years old. By the age of five, I was well into a regular technique I had developed to try to alleviate my suffering. I screamed my head off, trying to get my mother to come to me. I don’t exactly know what I thought my mother could do for me. Nothing ever worked to relieve the pain. The headaches would run their course. So if nothing relieved the pain, the only reason I can think that I continued pleading for help is that I wanted sympathy, someone to say “Oh, yes. It is completely unfair that you have a headache.” I wanted someone to tell me that I was so important that everyone wanted to hear all about my suffering and would do everything in their power to fix me. Or maybe I wanted to blame someone else for my suffering. Maybe I was punishing my mother for her not saving me from pain.
Over the years I developed all sorts of attendant pains that I could add to my list of suffering, a list that identified the ‘me’ in the story of the ‘I’ that I clung to.
At some point I started to understand that by reiterating the story of poor little old me, I generated three kinds of responses in the people around me. Sympathy, irritation or indifference – none of which had any real, lasting affect on my suffering, except possibly to make it worse. If my suffering-narrative did not convince the world that my suffering was absolutely significant, what good was it? If the world didn’t seem to be in the business of taking my suffering away, the inescapable conclusion was that if I wanted to end my suffering I would have to do it myself.
Yes, the world was generally willing to try to cure any of my physical pains, but suffering is different than pain. Pain is a biological signal warning us that something is going wrong with our physical being. Suffering is thinking that pain is unfair. Suffering is thinking that you are being treated badly by fate. Suffering is blaming oneself or others for your misfortune. Suffering is hanging on to the fact that something irritating happened to you three days ago and letting it poison the moment right now.
Evidence suggests that everyone gets some share of physical pain. Zen has always said that suffering is optional. It took me about forty years of listening before I could hear it said.
All my life I had tried to understand the workings of the world. I had the unconscious belief that if I could understand everything, I would be able to do things so perfectly right nothing bad would ever happen again, anywhere, to me or to any one else. I wandered the aisles looking for anyone who would listen to me and try to impress them with how much I knew. (Or maybe I was trying to convince myself?) If I knew so much then shouldn’t people listen to what I had to say about how they should live their lives? Nothing I ever learned helped me relieve the general suffering. I just irritated people. The failure of my learning became a large part of my narrative of suffering.
About three years ago my daughter told me she didn’t like the way I argued. I can’t remember the details of her complaint anymore, but out of the complaint came a realization. I can only describe it as the sudden and complete understanding that I knew nothing. I suddenly realized that it was literally impossible for me to really know anything (never mind everything). I fell into the first depression I had ever felt. How was I going to fulfil my responsibility for making myself and every one around me feel good?
A month went by and all I could do was sit there, stunned, staring the truth in the face. I know nothing! I know nothing! Then an odd thing happened. I woke up one morning and realized that I actually liked not knowing anything. A huge weight had been removed from my back. I wasn’t responsible for everything. I couldn’t be. I was only responsible for my own acts, thoughts, and feelings. I was only little in comparison to the immensity of the universe. I could not be expected to know much. I would make lots of mistakes, but as long as I was willing to take responsibility for them, all would be well. Wave suffering good-bye.
So I there I was, thinking I had arrived at a place where I wasn’t going to suffer any more. Silly me, to think I would get off so easily. If we got off easy, we wouldn’t have what is called zen practice. Practising zen is practising to notice the suffering-narrative when it arises so we can let it float away, without hanging on to it. (But never forget, if you have your hand in the fire, to take it out.)
Suffering still raised its head every once and a while, but armed with the knowledge of knowing nothing, I found I could pull myself out of the slough of despond more quickly each time I fell in. Suffering no longer was a indication of how unfair the world was to ‘poor old me’, it became merely an indicator that I was looking at the world, or myself, in an unhelpful way (more on that later). The narration of suffering no longer had a full time grip on me.
But then, surprise surprise, I discovered that the problem (of constantly narrating my suffering in order to develop the ‘I’) had simply transferred itself to a deeper layer of my psyche and had became subtler, trickier. The old ego was not about to easily give up and disappear. Now my storyline became: I’m the kind of person who finds pain intellectually interesting in that the human body was sure capable of thinking up all sorts of weird feelings.
I discovered this new complex after attending a three day sesshin. Lots of pain in the back while sitting. I tried to bull my way through the pain when the smart thing would have been to sit in a chair for a while. And then, after a six hour trip driving the car home, I couldn’t lift my leg out of the car without picking the leg up with my hands. I immediately told everyone all about it. How interesting, I said, convinced that I was only bringing up the topic, ‘My Pain Leading to Lameness’, because pain was such an peculiar, intellectual problem.
Everyone was very solicitous of my well-being. Two weeks later I was still receiving enquiries about the health of my back. How kind and considerate everyone truly was. Giving. Concerned. How humbled I felt. My tricky ego had once again involved me with practising (albeit in a manner less transparent to myself) the illusion of the significant ‘I’ who suffers. I almost felt embarrassed for using up the good sympathetic energy sent my way. I could only bow and thank everyone for their good concern. I would rather not have solicited for it. After all, nothing bad had happened, beyond a minor inconvenience. My back was sore for a few hours. In fact, I learned a good thing from the pain: if I start hurting while meditating, sit in a chair for a while. But rather than being embarrassed (more suffering) for having fallen into another reiteration of my suffer-narrative, I decided I would take the occasion to learn another lesson about how to avoid practising my suffering identity.
I will not tell myself or others anymore suffering-narrative episodes.
I will not tell myself or others anymore about my pain.
I will not tell myself or others anymore about my pain.
When Hogen spoke at the end of the sesshin, he asked everyone to put up their hand if they had experienced physical pain while sitting. Everyone put up their hand. “Good,” he said. “Then no one needs to mention it again.”